Most of the news media missed the point about the space trips by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson by describing them as a race among business tycoons to see who will send the most tourists into orbit.
What we have just witnessed in recent days is much bigger than that.
Judging from what Virgin Galactic founder Branson told me in an interview a few years ago — and what I heard in recent days from several astrophysicists and aerospace engineers — this is the beginning of a new era that they call the “space economy.” And it’s going to have a huge impact down here on Earth.
It will amount to a conquest of space, driven by the private sector, in which tourism will be just the first step. Soon, it will expand into space mining, and later into space manufacturing, space construction and space colonization.
It is likely to happen like this:
First, Amazon founder Bezos’ Blue Origin, Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s Space X and other space tourism companies will send growing numbers of tourists to space.
As spaceships become bigger, and re-usable rockets make these trips less costly, prices will drop from the current $250,000 a ticket, and more people are likely to sign up. Blue Origin is already planning to send two more rockets with paying tourists into space this year.
“In the next 10 or 20 years, prices will become much more accessible, and instead of expensive spacecraft that will carry only the very rich, many more people will have the opportunity to go into space,” Branson told me in 2013.
The next step, as the novelty of spending a few minutes of weightlessness in space wears off, will be that growing numbers of people will want to spend days, or weeks, in space, rather than just a few minutes.
That will require building hotels in space, or at least stations where tourists will be able to spend long periods of time contemplating the Earth.
After that, there will be a growing space-mining industry, because space hotels will need water, food and construction materials that will be very expensive to ship from Earth.
“If you have astronauts in space or you have tourists and space hotels, water is easier to mine off an asteroid, and in the long term it’s cheaper,” says Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Institute of Science.
In addition, asteroids have precious metals, such as gold and platinum, as well as rare earth elements that are much-needed for our smart phones and computers, Haqq-Misra says.
Later, there will be a rush to build manufacturing plants on the moon, or on Mars. Shortly after returning from his July 20 trip to space, Bezos told CNN that we need to “take all heavy industry and polluting industry on Earth and move it up into space.”
And then, there would be human colonies in space. Tesla’s Musk has long been working to create what he says will be a colony of 80,000 people on Mars.
Of course, there are many moral and legal questions surrounding space exploration by these and other billionaires.
Should they be putting more of their resources into solving issues like hunger and illness on Earth? Maybe so. Should they be paying more taxes than they do now? Definitely.
There are also legal issues over who will own whatever is found or built in space.
Under a 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, nations cannot claim ownership on the exploration and use of outer space, “including the moon and other celestial bodies.” But the treaty’s drafters didn’t contemplate that private companies would conquer outer space. We soon may see big legal fights over space resources.
But get ready: What we saw in recent days marks the beginning of a huge private space industry that will most likely reshape the world economy in coming decades. There are plenty of reasons to fret about it, but I think it’s the most exciting thing that we’ve seen since man landed on the moon more than 50 years ago.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera